14. “Barbershop” (Season 2, Episode 5)
A bad day for Al is grounded in a deeply relatable situation — when you trust just one person with your hairstyle, to what lengths will you go to maintain your look? In Al’s case, the answer involves more than one criminal action as his barber Bibby (Robert S. Powell III) drags him across town dragging out the haircut Al desperately needs (especially after Bibby screws up Al’s hair during an early attempt to get the cut going). It’s one bad decision after another, and Al ends up deeply regretting his decision to follow Bibby…but also his decision to choose another barber, at the end. It’s so hard to say what the best choice is in these circumstances, but Brian Tyree Henry’s incredible performance keeps us in the moment, every step of the way.
13. “Helen” (Season 2, Episode 4)
The most strongly directed of the Van-centric episodes, thanks to Amy Seimetz, “Helen” is a descent into Germanic madness as Van introduces Earn to the fictionalized celebration known as Fasnacht in Helen, Georgia. From the baffling games and animal masks to the creature called the Schanppviecher, the entire episode feels like a bizarre and frightening world that exists next door to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” That it’s also the stage where Van and Earn ultimately break up for good just lends the proceedings extra poignancy. Many of us can relate to having a relationship that is comfortable but not in our best interests, and when the final confrontation occurs over a game of ping-pong, the look of determination on Van’s face is heartbreaking. She already knows and the audience already knows what will happen. The game is just a formality for Earn to understand that she means business.
12. “The Jacket” (Season 1, Episode 10 – Finale)
The freshman finale of “Atlanta” eschews the heightened ridiculousness throughout the season and instead goes back to the somewhat lackadaisical pacing seen in the earliest episodes. The focus on Earn finding his jacket after a night of heavy drinking is puzzling at first and even more confounding after he witnesses a man wearing his jacket get gunned down by police. Ultimately, we discover that Earn wanted the jacket because of a key that is for a storage unit where he’s now living. It’s a sobering conclusion to such a wild ride of a season, yet feels necessary. Despite the hijinks, despite everyone else’s attempts to define him, despite having close friends and a girlfriend, despite any success he has achieved, in the end, Earn has chosen this night to be on his own, to answer only to himself even if it means more meager surroundings. The episode sets up a style that has been repeated in Season 2, where the journey is entertaining for the audience to watch, but not until the last moments does it become clear that it’s been driving to a thought-provoking point.
11. “The Big Bang” (Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot)
Darius offering a plate of cookies in one hand with a knife in the other, Earn breaking out the Latin origins of “manage,” the philosophical stranger on the bus with a Nutella sandwich — even before the “Atlanta” pilot circles back around to its opening, it gave audiences plenty of reasons to believe that this was a show worth paying attention to. And rather than just a series of disjointed conversations or setups to jokes about tree-measuring, there’s an instant sense of how Earn fits into his own world. His relationships with his family, his daughter, Van, and even a few radio station employees are all immediately on display, setting the stage for a show that held together, wherever it chose to drift next.
10. “Nobody Beats the Biebs” (Season 1, Episode 5)
This episode became one of the calling cards of the show’s glorious unpredictability, but there’s plenty more here than the celebrity basketball game itself. Earn trying to navigate another new level of entertainment management and Darius’ experience at the shooting range are some prime examples of “Atlanta” misdirection. While something eye-grabbing may be happening in one place, the Earn/Al/Darius trio allows the show to branch out and tackle a handful of ideas all at once. Trying to find an episode-arcing throughline here is a little more challenging than others, given how spread out they are. But “Nobody Beats the Biebs” is a tribute to the idea that perception and context are powerful things that can affect your life in ways you might not even realize.
9. “Value” (Season 1, Episode 6)
There’s a brutality to the chain of events in this episode that lead to Van losing her job, because the story perfectly captures a key theme of “Atlanta” — how trusting in “the system” is an easy way to be betrayed by it. After a night with her friend who has mastered the art of using men for their money and privilege, Van returns to her real life and scrambles to pass a drug test that she later finds out would never have been tested. But when she admits to smoking pot to her supervisor, she gets fired…even though she wouldn’t have been caught. “It’s unfair!” you shout. “Atlanta” agrees with you. But also, “Atlanta” doesn’t give you a happy ending.
8. “Streets on Lock” (Season 1, Episode 2)
After the series premiere set up the basic premise of “Atlanta,” “Streets on Lock” showed how loosely the show would adhere to its set-up. Sure, Earn and Albert’s time in the clink was a direct result of what happened in the previous episode, but writer Stephen Glover zeroed in on the experience of being in jail as opposed to glossing over it as a temporary inconvenience. Topical issues percolated, including police misconduct and discrimination, but it was all seen through the lens of being there, sitting in the room, living through something that many other shows gloss over. “Atlanta” doesn’t gloss over anything, and this was an early example of the riches that can be excavated from specifics.